Women & Co.: Will Citi Get It Right?

Citigroup's new membership club offers a slew of services for its $125 annual fee

Citigroup (C ) may be a latecomer in courting women investors, but it's showing there are advantages to having waited. Its new division, Women & Co., is rolling out a unique program of services in three cities this fall--and nationwide next year--that go way beyond investing. Citigroup developed the concept by "watching what others were doing and knowing we had to do something different," says Lisa Caputo, president of Women & Co. and Hillary Clinton's press secretary from 1992 to 1996.

At last count, some two dozen companies were targeting the women's financial-services market. But most programs merely offer seminars and brochures to help with investing. Women & Co., by contrast, is a membership program aimed at women ages 25 to 54 with an income or investable assets of at least $100,000. For an annual $125 fee, members are entitled to a host of services--from asset-allocation advice to financial counseling for a bereaved spouse or partner--as well as discounts for such services as mortgage, insurance, child-care centers, nanny referrals, and nanny payroll-tax preparation (table). You sign up either through Women & Co.'s Web site (www.womenandco.com), by calling 888 679-9255, or through Citibank and Salomon Smith Barney branches that are participating in the pilot.

Members also can enjoy so-called appreciation benefits, such as the midsummer lunch I attended at Manhattan's Four Seasons restaurant for a handful of initial members. It featured Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary and chairman of Citigroup's executive committee, speaking on the global economy.

What's most refreshing is that members don't have to maintain a financial relationship with Citigroup to avail themselves of its services. Yet "I'm willing to bet members will be so pleased with the experience and the professionals" that they will transfer their assets to Citigroup, says Caputo.

Citigroup is hoping its investment advisers will come to serve as the linchpin of members' financial life. Women & Co.--which plans to have some 150 advisers from either Salomon Smith Barney or Citibank for the New York, Chicago, and Miami markets--says the adviser approach will be heavy on education, with clients given lots of time to make decisions. The idea grew out of nearly two years of focus groups and interviews with women who said they wanted flexibility, options, and information when it came to financial services. To pick an adviser, members can log onto the Web site, which will list the planners and their credentials. Unfortunately, the group was still training advisers at the time of this writing, so I didn't experience the Women & Co. approach firsthand.

EASE OF USE. Citigroup also has tapped Ayco in Albany, N.Y., a financial-planning firm in which it has a 13% stake, to provide members with a toll-free telephone answer line, a robust online financial-planning tool, and a financial-counseling service for those who have lost a spouse or partner. Survivor-support services can range from helping you track down crucial documents to estate-planning advice.

I was impressed by the depth and ease of use of the online-planning tool, which you link to through the Women & Co. site. It took me some 30 minutes to plug in all the data it required. While some questions could be clearer, I was easily able to get help via the answer line. Ayco didn't recommend specific investments, but it did assess my overall financial health, map out an asset-allocation plan, and specify the steps needed to reach my retirement goals.

Citigroup's concept of offering women a range of financial products and services under one umbrella has tremendous appeal. While some products, say, insurance or mortgages, can be had elsewhere for a lower price, Citigroup is betting that the convenience of having one place to go for financial advice will turn members into loyal customers.

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By Toddi Gutner

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